Stone Bear at Leamington Canal Festival
It seems almost unreal and a bit transgressive to find myself writing a live review after so many months of reviewing the recorded activities of local musicians. I hope I can remember how to do it….
Today at the Leamington Canal Festival, thankfully music was possible (thanks to 14 Records who made it so) and although could not make it down for The Peas' set, I caught "Hot Music Live" favourites Stone Bear: my first experience of being in the same space as playing musicians since catching the Wes Finch Trio (also outside) as part of the Kenilworth Arts Festival on September 19th, 2020: some nine months ago. Ironically (and I suspect that a return to live music may generate many ironies over the coming weeks), my previous gig (and my last one indoors) was Stone Bear supporting Izzie Derry at her EP launch at the Tin on March 14th 2020. Since they've not played since, that makes it two Stone Bear gigs in a row for me, albeit fifteen months apart. How dreadful a gap.
Thankfully neither David John nor Jeff Dennis have lost their skills in the interim (though practising together can't have been too easy) and they started their set like men with a lot of pent up frustration to work off. How much that played in the further irony of a string breaking in the introduction to the first song they'd played live in a year and a quarter is for us to conjecture.
Always a powerful & dynamic duo, they did not disappoint in the initial onslaught: in fact not only did audience members dance but so did the monitors as David through himself about on the 14 Records mobile stage van. The suspension got a whole working out.
Yet this was only the start of the story. Although beginning in the manner of a blues orientated hurricane, the set evolved quite markedly. Drawing mainly on original material from both their self titled debut album and its follow up, ‘Bring a Little Love', plus subsequent compositions, up to and including a lockdown written one, the second half of the set in particular reflected the more acoustic sound of that second collection melded with what I considered to be a nod to the current collective mood: the new song in particular tended to the melancholic if not desperate. Even the first album's "Broken Stones" (a particular favourite of mine which I was touched that they dedicated to me), already a powerfully understated song was played with a downbeat restraint which I'd never heard them use before.
Thus you might say that Stone Bear certainly captured more than one aspect of the mood of those to whom they were playing: yes there was much enjoyment (not least on stage) and sense of some liberation, but also of deeper and more reflective themes: both of which you can find across their recorded work.
Now they are back out playing & clearly picking right back up where they left off as one of the area's most popular live acts, I sincerely trust my next Stone Bear gig will come sooner than in fifteen more months time.
‘Bring a Little Love' by Stone Bear
A moment of pleasure, the more appreciated because it was unexpected, hit me last evening with the news that Stone Bear have released a new album, entitled ‘Bring a Little Love'.
It was around eighteen months ago that I first reported to you that the band were adopting a new approach to writing for a while, after the very raw & full on sound on their self titled debut album, with a greater emphasis on finger picking from David and Jeff using brushes more, resulting in a softer, more intimate set of material.
Since then, they have shared a series of singles with us to reflect this, some of which ("Ole Cherry Tree", "Long Gone", "Train" etc) are compiled on this new record & of course the title track itself first appeared on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume One': I suggest rather than repeating the reviews of those tracks, you might refer back to refresh your memory as to what I felt about them.
Even the songs you have already heard however have been remixed for ‘Bring a Little Love' & Stone Bear are fortunate enough to have their own studio for this purpose & for the original recordings.
Those tracks which have not previously been released in other formats are called "Shakin' Your Head", "Till The Morning Sun" , "Stone Bear Blues" , "Till The Sun Looks Down" , "Devil On The Hill" and "Crawl Across The Water". Generally (and I'd like to say firstly that they don't sound at all like each other), these songs tend towards the gentler end of the blues, with often sparse & open arrangements allowing us to savour each lick & beat to the fullest, so you can see both how they fit into the Stone Bear template for 2019/20 and equally why their home was always more likely to be on an album rather than as a single
Nevertheless, despite this set of characteristics, each is extremely memorable in its own right, and one aspect of Stone Bear's talent (one perhaps I haven't fully explored before this particular review) is in writing concise & tightly honed "proper songs". Yes they certainly do have a compelling live act & are rightly praised for their musicianship, but there is real taste in there too: in concert there is no showboating, no self indulgent soloing: just straight to the target blues playing & I am sure that is one of the major elements in their appeal.
It is also greatly to their credit that they have carried out this two year project of exploring a different side to the blues from the more raw Howlin' Wolf or Leadbelly end of the spectrum: it shows us (and presumably themselves too), that the volume can be turned down without loss of power & emotional impact and their creation of such beautiful & melancholically contemplative songs as "Till The Sun Looks Down" or "Devil On The Hill" fit in perfectly with previous tracks like the exquisite "Broken Stones" from their debut (a personal favourite) and enrich their overall canon of work.
That's not to say however that "quieter" means a succession of mournful blues ballads: "Till The Morning Sun" struts along in compelling fashion (the closest we get to the John Lee Hooker vibe on here), as does the funky "Shakin' Your Head" (the one song which not having been a single might plausibly have been so in my opinion), "Stone Bear Blues" forsakes the finger picking for a clarion Chicago style piece & album closer "Crawl Across The Water" offers a passionate & uplifting message to us.
Not only have the band shared these songs with us now, but they are already working on a third album which is something greatly to be anticipated as of course is their eventual return to live performance, which after all is what they have built their considerable reputation upon. In the meantime, a remixed version of "Long Gone" (which first appeared with "Train" back in January of this year) is the new single from this album & has already had BBC airplay. Hopefully you now have sufficient great new Stone Bear material for your pleasure to keep you going until 2021 brings a resumption (we trust) of their full activity levels.
"Train" by Stone Bear
I do hope you enjoyed the Stone Bear song "Bring A Little Love" which appeared on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume One'? Now Jeff Dennis (drums) and David John (guitar & vocals) after a busy time, playing festivals in the summer & Jeff becoming a father, they have a new record (available on Spotify), "Train", paired with "Long Gone"
Over the last year, their music has to some extent explored a more acoustic & intimate style than previously. "Train" fits into this trend, at least in terms of instrumentation. The raw power of their work which is their calling card & the core of their appeal to audiences & respect among their peers remains as potent as ever.
Another of their many songs with a definite pre-war blues feel & another which emulates & could snugly fit within the repertoire of the great pioneers of the form, the song as always features great playing, both in terms of technique & an authentic feel, with that hallmark of good musicians of sounding simple while being far from it. Add to that their performance commitment & you have a great, timeless, song which will fit really well into their live set & enhance their standing still further.
Its companion piece, "Long Gone" showcases David's superb slide playing in this brooding & powerful song. In this one, not only does it sound like it was written in 1920 but David sounds like he has been tramping the highway & riding the rails for the intervening period or its equivalent: he really conveys the sense of burden & endurance thereof.
Here's something I've never before done: I'm going to add to a review mention of another track not on the record under examination: another new one which Stone Bear had played on BBC Introducing in Coventry & Warwickshire last week: "Blues in A minor" which certainly lives up to its name but differs in sound from either of the above tunes, being in much more of a post-war, urban style, smoother & electric with a prominent swinging bassline in addition to voice, guitar & drums.
I'm assuming that from the evidence of these three songs, the Stone Bear concerts I've attended in recent months & conversations with them that the indications for their musical direction for the time being is a little away from the searing Howlin' Wolf type material towards various aspects of more laid back blues, whether it be via switching to acoustic or by a greater emphasis on swing. However some things do not seem likely to change: the musicianship, the integrity & the commitment.
Stone Bear supported by Ollie Lawrence
It is always really great to have new talent introduced to you & it is a clear & highly admirable feature of much of the music scene locally that so many artists support & mentor emerging talent & as with last night, offer them gig opportunities they would not otherwise find easy to obtain.
Stone Bear invited young local guitarist Ollie Lawrence to support them at the Magic Lantern: his very first real gig as distinct from open mic appearances, but not I imagine his last. Stone Bear were keen to emphasise that in choosing a support act, his was the first name on the list: they hold him in high esteem & now I understand why.
A most accomplished guitarist, I had better get the Hendrix comparisons out of the way early on (virtue of being his first reviewer): I imagine others will draw the same parallels as he uses a similar approach< a very percussive player his fingers keep up almost incessant riffing with occasional chords & solos. Playing with a loud distorted sound, which was very powerful in such a small space, his singing was at times rather difficult to hear (something to work on) which was a shame as he writes his own material & the lyrics did seem interesting. His voice perhaps owes something to the style of Prince but also there are Steve Winwood soul echoes in there: the guitar sound may be quite a rock one but he does keep it pretty funky too. Playing despite a damaged finger (not good in such a dynamic player I'd imagine), Ollie demonstrated a great deal of confidence in his playing even if he had understandably expressed some trepidation.
Stone Bear (David John on guitar/vocals & Jeff Dennis on drums) are vastly more experienced of course, and one of the most respected of local live acts, but the irony is that although often a pretty loud duo themselves, had opted for a style on the night much more laid back than their support act.
This was not wholly to do with adjusting their set to the more intimate space. They have declared that 2019 is going to be a year for a new angle for the band with David adopting more finger picking & writing material which reflects this. Jeff's use of brushes & softer techniques may have been to do with the room but it certainly fitted their newer material & allowed, for example, me to really appreciate what a precise & inventive player he is. The same level of scrutiny of course applies to David under such circumstances & I think it offers them extra chances to show what fine & subtle musicians they are. The good crowd at the Magic Lantern certainly showed their appreciation.
As noted, the set tended towards newer original material (although several of their trademark roots blues covers were also performed) including the latest single "Ole Cherry Tree", "Woke Up This Mornin" (their most recently released track) and a track so recently composed as to be yet nameless. This is a really interesting direction for them to develop into & fits really well with some experiments in that vein on their debut album & which featured in the set, such as the enci=ore "Broken Stones".
You can catch Stone Bear at the APE Night at the Zephyr Lounge on April 27th as well as open mics at Apehangers (April 21st) & Leif (April 30th)
"Ole Cherry Tree" by Stone Bear
We are lucky to have more than our fair share of excellent blues practitioners locally: not only do they all possess an obvious love of the form as well as great technique, they all bring an individual approach to the music, partly due to their own styles, partly due to their particular interests within the broad range of the genre. Stone Bear (who comprise Jeff Dennis on drums and vocals
& David John on guitar, vocals and harmonica) are certainly creating a very distinct voice on the scene (you may already have heard them live, or their eponymous debut album or the track they kindly allowed to appear on "Hot Music Live Presents Volume One": "Bring a Little Love")
The fact that they only have two members ensures the sound is stripped back to its essentials for starters: add to that a clear penchant for the earliest & rawest forms (which must mirror to some extent how the blues was originally played in the Deep South particularly, even if the instrumentation probably rarely included drums as such) and you have a most compelling recipe.
And so to their latest single (available on all reputable download sites) " Ole Cherry Tree"
Propelled by Jeff's swing drumming & David's Howlin' Wolf style riff, the song is an interesting balance between a smooth & intoxicating groove & David's very raw & emotive singing. This is Stone Bear par excellence & I'm told reflects the style of the material they are currently recording. Sung in classic repeating couplets style, the song seems to address timeless & mythic issues of travel, home, love & tradition: in fact if you wrote the lyrics down & presented them to me I'd have certainly bought them as possibly having been written at anytime in the blues history. The images evoked sit outside rooted time & place (which is ironic given the word "roots" is one which instantly springs to mind when hearing it) and I should be interested if other musicians choose to cover it: it has "standard" potential stamped right through it.
You can catch Stone Bear live at the Magic Lantern at Temperance on Friday 19th April & at the next APE Promotions night at the Zephyr Lounge on Saturday 27th April
Stone Bear at the Townhouse
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